WorldPride kicks off today in Toronto, and with rainbows flying and attention turning toward queer diversity, this is the perfect time to look at the long history of important contributions lesbian filmmakers have made to cinema. From well-known names to all-but-forgotten talent, these filmmakers have had an indelible impact on cinema. They are leading examples of the benefits of diversity, and their treatments of theme, scope, and identity challenge the repetitive confines of modern filmmaking.
The list that follows is by no means comprehensive. There are many “one-hit wonders”: Great talents who have yet to direct follow-up films (including Alice Wu, who helmed Saving Face, and Jennie Livingston, who scored a documentary hit with Paris Is Burning). Others are more prolific, but harder to access. Monika Treut’s work is hard to find (though Amazon Prime members can stream Female Misbehavior), and Barbara Hammer’s is almost impossible to view unless you buy it sight-unseen from her website.
Nevertheless, below are 10 excellent and essential lesbian directors and game-changers.
Given the number of roles he’s had over the course of his career, it’s amazing that we have yet to see Tom Cruise sing the Mighty Mouse theme, “Here I Come to Save the Day.” For the last 30 years, Cruise has saved the day time and again. He’ll run and run toward any danger until he’s victorious. It’s a formula that turned him into one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars.
But in his latest must-see action film, Edge of Tomorrow, things play out a little differently. Here, Cruise is the cowardly man who will save the day only after a powerful woman teaches him how.
Angelina Jolie’s horned visage has lured the masses to Maleficent — an effects-laden world of love, betrayal, battle, and redemption, promoted by Jolie-centric ads that promised a story in which all supporting characters were irrelevant.
But the movie tells a different story: a far more conventional one, in fact.
In its first act, Maleficent offers a dark, surprisingly adult exploration of rape and female mutilation. The fairy Maleficent meets and falls for Stefan (Sharlto Copley), a young human torn between his love for her and his quest for power. When the dying king offers the throne to the man who kills Maleficent, Stefan sets out to do it himself, schmoozing with his old love before drugging her and preparing to stab her. But Stefan’s weakness prevents him from doing so. Instead, he chooses to mutilate her unconscious body, cutting off her wings (to use as proof of her death) and leaving her alone and bleeding on the forest floor. When she wakes, she screams and sobs in both emotional and physical pain as she discovers that her love betrayed and disfigured her.
But after the brutal attack, Maleficent quickly retools itself, heading into a whirlwind of tones while ignoring the darker implications of its opening story. In a brisk 97 minutes, decades of narrative are distilled into boilerplate genre elements: The chills of a rape revenge fantasy, the mirth of slapstick, and the adrenaline of action. Just as Maleficent’s wingless body ends up tied to the ground, her story is limited by the parameters set by the conventional Sleeping Beauty tale. This is because — despite the film’s title — Maleficent’s story is not her own after all. It is still Princess Aurora’s.
The Thin Man‘s Nora Charles turns 80 this month. At first glance, it seems strange that Myrna Loy’s fur-clad, drink-guzzling, and less-than-maternal Nora would have been toasted as the “perfect wife” by Tinseltown. As the actress is often quoted: “Some perfect wife I am… I’ve been married four times, divorced four times…have no children and can’t boil an egg.”
Nevertheless, the heroine of the 1934 classic was framed as the ideal — and it was a beautiful contradiction that changed how we think about women in cinema.
During a discussion about superhero adaptations in the latest Scriptnotes podcast, host Craig Mazin and Man of Steel scribe David S. Goyer discussed the “attributes” of She-Hulk, who shares broadly similar powers with the Incredible Hulk. After Mazin described the superhero as “Slut-Hulk,” and said she was made “just to appeal sexistly to 10-year-old boys,” Goyer shared his own theory about the superhero, as transcribed by The Mary Sue:
“I have a theory about She-Hulk. Which was created by a man, right? And at the time in particular I think 95 percent of comic book readers were men and certainly almost all of the comic book writers were men. So the Hulk was this classic male power fantasy. [...] She-Hulk was the extension of the male power fantasy. So it’s like if I’m going to be this geek who becomes the Hulk then let’s create a giant green porn star that only the Hulk could f–k.”
Goyer dug his hole even deeper when he was asked about adapting the Martian Manhunter, a longtime member of the Justice League, for film. Goyer said he would make the superhero a prisoner of Area 51, “then he gets out and he’s really angry and he f–ks She-Hulk.”
As many have since commented, Goyer’s remarks are a perfect encapsulation of the problems inherent in the overly sexualized portrayals of female superheroes in film. But they also offer an opportunity to discuss the fundamental attitude adjustment that will be necessary if these attitudes are going to change.
Last night, Sandra Oh’s impressive, 10-season span on Grey’s Anatomy finally came to an end. Oh’s Dr. Cristina Yang was one of the show’s primary balancing forces, playing by her own rules as she evolved into an uncompromising surgeon destined for greatness. Her work on the series has earned her five Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe in 2006.
The show’s loss, however, is the viewer’s gain. Spending that long on a TV show makes it hard for audiences to see an actor as anything other than the character they play — particularly when the show has taken up a full half of the actor’s 20-year career.
Fortunately, Oh’s lesser-known film work offers a roadmap for the wide-open potential for her career going forward. Her supporting roles have showed plenty of range, from the quirkiness of the wacky British comedy Bean to the teenage fairy tale of The Princess Diaries to the darkness of Hard Candy. But Oh has also starred in a handful of films where she commanded more of the spotlight, facing everything from familial pressures to the end of the world. Each reveals Oh’s extraordinary ability to move from happiness to despair, filming many of her most cutting and resonant moments without saying a word.
“I’ve grown up, though. That was the old me; angry me; vengeful me. New me? People say I’m a marshmallow.”
Ten years after she left TV, Veronica Mars — the sarcastic, crime-solving Neptune High student who escaped her small beach town and never looked back — returned in a Kickstarter-funded film (available on DVD/Blu-ray this week). The new Veronica eschews her status as a “marshmallow” to embrace her inner badass and solve another mystery.
Superficially, the movie’s setup hits at the heart of what made the TV series so resonant: a girl whose quest for justice is fueled by her need for truth and her desire for revenge. But instead of exploring these elements as Veronica reenters a town on the brink of chaos, the film falls short, relying on repetition and shock drama in a kind of limbo between the studio and the fans.